The Bad News of the Kingdom

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Michael Lawrence:

What Is the Good News? Biblical Theology’s Answer

Let’s consider how both biblical theology and systematic theology are important and relate to each other when we try to answer the most basic of ministry questions: What is the gospel? What is the good news that the Bible reveals to us?

When biblical theology comes to this question, it lays out the grand sweep of God’s actions in history. That sweep might be described as the movement from Creation ➜ Fall ➜ Redemption ➜ New Creation. Notice that this outline follows the narrative of Scripture itself. It explains what God is doing across redemptive history as that history moves from the garden of Eden to the new heavens and new earth.

The Good News of the Kingdom

Biblical theology also talks about the gospel in terms of the kingdom of God. George Eldon Ladd has forever changed the way all of us think about this kingdom.[1] As Ladd observed, the Bible generally uses the language of kingdom to speak not of God’s realm, but of his reign. Of course God is always reigning. He’s the sovereign Lord of the universe that he made. But when Scripture speaks of the kingdom of God, it’s typically referring to his redemptive reign. It’s the reign that we see among those who are truly his people, those who obey.

When Mark 1:14–15 says that Jesus came preaching the gospel of God that the kingdom of God is near, this is what biblical theology says that gospel is all about. It’s the cosmic good news of what God is doing through Jesus Christ. The kingdom was lost to us at the fall and pictured for us as a shadow in the history of Israel. But now, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated anew. Sin has been defeated. The church lives out the life of the kingdom by the power of the Spirit. And we look forward to the day when the king returns and consummates his reign, a reign that will know no end.

Good News! Except . . .

This is a fantastic message. It’s an extraordinary story, as we’ll see in the chapters to come. It captures the imagination and reorders the way we think about everything. It is incredibly good news!

Except for one thing.

Me. And you.

Where do we fit into the story?

The Good, the Bad, and the Kingdom

The grand story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, the story of the coming of God’s kingdom, tells me what God is doing and how he’s doing it. But how is that good news for sinners like you and me?

The coming of the kingdom of God might be good news to the cosmos, but it’s bad news for sinners, because the coming of the kingdom means judgment and wrath, as well as renewal and re-creation. So does the story of God’s coming kingdom apply to me so that it is personally good news?

Enter Systematic Theology

To answer that question, we need systematic theology. When systematic theology answers the question, “What is the gospel?” it talks in the four categories of God ➜ Man ➜ Christ ➜ Response. Here’s how the cosmic good news becomes personal good news, a gospel for you and me. The coming of the kingdom of God (biblical theology gospel) is bad news for sinners. But in view of Christ’s work on the cross as a penal substitute, and God’s provision so that we can benefit from that work through repentance and faith (systematic theology gospel), we now have good news.

Here is a message that doesn’t merely describe how wonderful the kingdom is. No, here is a message that brings you and me personally into that kingdom. Some people these days want to denigrate such formulation as overly individualistic, overly defined by Western legal notions of guilt and punishment.

But the fact is, unless the gospel has something to say about my individual salvation, it remains merely a story that can inspire us to good deeds and noble thoughts, but cannot rescue us from God’s wrath (whatever else it has to say about God’s rescue of the cosmos). Systematic theology lands the plane;[2] it connects the story of God’s kingdom with the story of your life and mine.

Holding the Two Together

Does this mean we don’t really need biblical theology after all? No! As soon as I’ve said the word “kingdom,” I’ve returned to the biblical theology gospel and the hope of a salvation that is defined by an eternal kingdom.

Without biblical theology, I’m much more prone to reduce salvation to a privatized, existential experience, cut off from what God is doing corporately amongst his people. Without biblical theology, I’m unlikely to grasp the future hope that is held out for us in the new creation. Without biblical theology, I’ll be tempted to understand the plan of salvation as being about me, rather than about God’s glory.

You see, I need both, and they need each other. To be right with God for this life only doesn’t amount to much, says Paul (1 Cor. 15:19). The hope that the gospel brings us into is “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3–5).

Notes:
1. George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959).
2. Jonathan Leeman, “Biblical and Systematic Confusion Yields Gospel Delusions,” 9Marks e-journal (Nov/Dec 2006), http://www.9marks.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID314526%7CCHID7759 82%7CCIID2277978,00.html (last accessed June 4, 2009).

This post is adapted from Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church by Michael Lawrence.

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.